No supermarket retailer questions the power of local. What started out as a niche movement has ballooned to mainstream produce, meats and even Center Store. The questions of just what is local — how many miles of travel, how many hours since picked, whether all the ingredients are local or just the main ones, might well be pushed aside as one may argue that the local food trend may find itself on shaky ground.
The listeria-contaminated cantaloupe outbreak last month will no doubt call for new production safety standards for local producers. The deaths of the 30 people (to date) who consumed the tainted melons will generate lawsuits that frankly this small cantaloupe producer, and it's insurance liability policies, will probably not be able to fund. Litigation attorneys are advertising on their websites and in other media free consultations “regarding lawsuits against Jensen Farms and the retailer who sold you the contaminated cantaloupe.”
Due to what appear to be unquestionable food-safety findings from the FDA inspectors, the brand, the producer and possibly the distributor are in peril. And then there are the supermarket retailers who sold the product.
In the quest for “local” and the consumer demand for it, many smaller producers have found their products on the shelves of supermarkets where one could argue they were not prepared to compete. Not just on price — but in production and operational efficiencies. Sometimes, in an effort to give the shopper what they want, or to do what we feel is the “right thing,” we do what we can to make it easier for some companies to offer their products. I can close my eyes and see the hate mail pouring in from smaller companies suggesting that what I am saying is killing their future plans and how I must favor big business; neither is true. I favor food operators who are strict and good operators when it comes to quality and taste, and are absolutely bullet-proof when it comes to food safety.
Every food producer (and now retailer) is at risk, but if one takes the tried and proven precautions, the incidence of problems is greatly reduced. There are new rules on the way, and one certainly will be that supermarket retailers will be much more demanding and be looking at “local” producers and their facilities more carefully — when that occurs, we all will win.
Phil Lempert is contributing editor of Supermarket News and CEO of The Lempert Report and SupermarketGuru.com .